What Head (and Other) Lice Tell Us About Evolution

By Sam Lowry | November 9, 2009 2:51 pm

The second episode of NOVA’s big evolution special “Becoming Human” premieres tomorrow night at 8 PM ET/PT on PBS.  Tuesday night’s show focuses on Homo erectus, the ancestor who became “basically us” almost 2 million years ago, developing the first human societies.

Much of what we know about Homo erectus comes from “Turkana Boy,” the famous skeleton found by the Leakey team in Kenya in the early 1980’s.  An important part of what we know, though, comes from the genetic study of lice.  And not just head lice.

Using “paleoartists,” digital filmmaking and the work done with Turkana Boy over the past two decades, the NOVA producers are able to paint a vivid portrait of  Homo erectus’s role in key innovations – like using fire and developing social bonds – that make us human.

The real action in the documentary starts about halfway through, when scientists tackle the question of how Homo erectus was able to obtain the protein necessary to support brain growth.   Of course, stone tools played a huge role in making sure that the humans “went home for dinner and weren’t the meal.”

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